Sally at Unbravegirl wrote a post this past Sunday about her search for the “authentic” travel experience in Thailand. It is a good article and the comments are just as interesting. This post grows out of a comment I left there; and might make more sense if you read her article first. I come to pretty much the same conclusion as her and most of the commenters, but I was interested to see what would come out of my mind when put to that subject.
The concept of searching for authentic travel experiences pops up across the travel blogging world a fair amount. There are stories of a group of travelers shunning anyone that happens to follow the road when they are way off-the-beaten track finding authentic experiences. The group that assumes that anything clean or even trendy is not authentic. They are happy only when drinking some unknown brew(what is that floating in there again?) in a tavern down some dark alley in a city that no one else has ever heard of. Anyone not willing to suffer for travel is not being authentic and just being a tourist (the last said with a sneer as an insult). Thankfully I’ve never seen this attitude in the wild.
Perhaps another aspect of the search for the authentic travel experience is the disappointment that Sally describes looking for an authentic village and seeing park benches and pepsi among the mud huts. This disappointment I do know well. Looking for an experience and feeling that it is ruined by the “modern tourist marketing machine” can cause even a hearty traveler to get jaded. At times like that I begin to think that the aforementioned travelers could be right. That the only authentic experiences are to be found outside of any tourist infrastructure. Though given the times that I have trucked about in the hinterlands lost just looking to get where I thought I wanted to be, I wonder if that is even worth it.
Traditionally we were quite authentic.
My addition to this debate is that “authenticity” should be swapped out for the word “traditional”. When I have the authenticity urge, what I am usually searching for is a view into the traditions and culture of another place. The main definition I found for authentic in the online Oxford dictionary has to do with not being a copy. An authentic experience is through that idea only one that isn’t a copy. The village in Sally’s story is then indeed authentic; not a copy of a village built in a Florida swamp all pristinely rundown. A lot of the disappointment comes from mismatched expectations. An expectation that authentic means as well that feeling that I am calling traditional. It is implicit in the way I would think if I saw a brochure about visiting an authentic village. I would say to myself. “self. We expect to see huts built in a traditional manner and people doing traditional crafts.” These are expectations that hurt when they are met by a gift shop in front of a monument or railing in a ruin. This modernity intrudes into our carefully built mental pictures labeled “quaint”.
The funny part is sometimes the in-authentic is exactly what we are looking for. I grew up in the southern US and there are plenty of old civil war battlefields and colonial ruins around. I know, my dad took us to a lot of them. Most are just boring. Old Salem is a place that I remember fondly. It is a part of Winston-Salem that was settled by Moravians. A section is maintained as if it was the town of the colonial times and populated by actors(?) as townspeople. It is perhaps not authentic, as I imagine a fare amount of it has been rebuilt. It does however give the traditional feeling and it is great fun to go to especially at Christmastime. Colonial Williamsburg is another example. These places go out of their way to show the history and traditions of a place; but in the end they are museums not reality. That doesn’t make them unsatisfying, pretty much the opposite.
The search for authentic often seems to synonymous with the search for the “unspoiled”. Looking for the part of a place that has not degenerated under the mass of tourism. A place that still clings to their traditional ways and knows little to nothing of the outside world. A Land of the Lost in the middle of civilization. Bah says I. I would like to think that looking for traditional should be the search for culture. Culture definitely has one leg in history, but it also has a big leg in the present. What people do now with their culture is as traditional and authentic as what they used to do, just living. Living history seems weird. Either it is the past or it isn’t. Living museum too can fall here.
I want to learn and understand a history that I didn’t have to live through. I will tour famous places like the Acropolis and dodge the masses of tourists following their multi-colored umbrellas and attempt to take in the place. Talk to most people that live in a very historical city and I would imagine they don’t notice it so much. Our market is around a 700 year old cathedral that most people in the market ignore. That doesn’t make it any less a part of the town or the culture.
Maybe some of this is the fascination of zoos versus wildlife safaris. Zoos package the animal seeing experience. Animals are presented in a facsimile of their habitats and gawked at by kids with balloons. Even wildlife shows distance you with the TV screen. There is a counter urge to see things in person close up as unspoiled as possible. To have nothing between you and the experience, no TV and no bars. Truly the animals are no less authentically animal in a zoo than in the wild and really a TV show probably gets better shots than you would see sitting in a jeep. But this doesn’t keep people from wanting that “real” animal experience.
Tripping the Light Fantastic
The young people’s daily tradition in my town here in Germany is to clog the McDonald’s so full that I couldn’t go even if I wanted to. Even the place I think of as the most traditional in town plays music from the 80’s and the waitresses still put the orders into hand-held computers. Try looking for a quiet authentic place in the middle of the World Cup. I didn’t realize half of the places in town even had TVs. In fact they probably didn’t, and probably don’t anymore. So using the original idea of searching for a place that fits your own definition of authentic and thus shunning all of the places that have TV’s and shouting people while muttering “rowdy tourists” under your breath, then you would be missing out on actual tradition and cultural experience.
If the aim is to go to a place that no one else of your friends has been to so that you can feel special and unique, then go for it. Those are great stories and I look forward to hearing them. I however am looking for experiences that link me with people that actually live in the places that I visit. I am a traveler not a local, I’ll grant that, but I want to belong, even if only for a week. So I go to the same little bakery every morning and order random things oozing different fillings from the case only by pointing from an old woman who speaks no English. This to me makes me feel connected. I don’t care if it is on a main road and every traveler I meet that has been there remembers her, I like that experience. I want to experience culture in the wild, no TC and no bars between me and real culture.
Was there a Point?
Well, um yes, there should be. My rambling will not stop anyone from slogging through leech infested rivers to a remote town of mud huts for a drink of fermented milk. I expect everyone is going to go looking for the experiences that they want anyway. It’s been said before, but we should probably stop using the word “authentic”. I put forth that “traditional” is a better description of what that urge seems to be. But even that falls short when I look at the experiences that I go out seeking. I want to be a part of a culture and a place for a few days. To feel like I belong. But dammit I still want to see all the sights and cool things to see; even if they are touristy and require van trips and english speaking guides. I just don’t want to fool myself into think that it is anymore than what it is: a set of travel experiences.